More Like Falling In Love Part 5 – The Limit Of Words
Give me words
I’ll misuse them
I’ll misplace them
Cause all religion ever made of me
Was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet…
In my continuing series about the meaning behind the lyrics of my song, “More Like Falling In Love,” we come to verse two, which begins with a statement about words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, specifically about the limits of words. I love words and language and the stories they conspire to create, which is one of the reasons why, I suppose, I’m a songwriter.
And yet the older I get the more I’m aware of the limit of words. Take for instance the exchange of words in any conversation: there are the words you speak and then there are the words that the other person hears, and they rarely carry the same meaning.
I am a person who – most times – painstakingly chooses my words so carefully in hopes of avoiding misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict. I do this in my blogs, in my songs, and nearly all of my conversations. It’s a form of control, I suppose – trying to manage things that are ultimately unmanageable.
I also place a high value on words because of how important it is to me to be understood. That’s why my blogs are always so long, because I try to anticipate misunderstandings and preemptively address them. But no matter how many words I pile up on top of each other, few will read my words as carefully as I write them and I will still get emails from concerned readers who thought I was saying something I didn’t intend to.
So, though I love words, they fail me every time because while I can try to control the meaning I intend to convey, I cannot control how people will hear them and what biases, baggage, and meaning they will bring to my words. In my marriage this can look like meaningful conversations degrading into fruitless battles over what certain words mean. “No, that may be what you heard, but that’s not what I said…” is the way that I might try to answer Taya when her feelings get hurt over a misunderstanding, and it’s an answer that – even when it’s true – really only serves to clear my name but does little to make her feel love. My solution is to use more and more words to try and clear up the misunderstanding – but more words only mean more opportunities to be misunderstood, and then we end up fighting about who meant what, etc. A simple apology and gesture of love, absorbing the misunderstanding rather than compounding it, accomplishes so much more.
But I believe in words too much! I keep hoping they can save the day! But I’ve been thinking about Jesus as he stood before Pilate and said… almost nothing at all. Jesus knew that words and well-constructed arguments would not save the day. “What is truth?” Pilate asks. Jesus’ answer couldn’t have been more potent when he wordlessly stands there as Truth himself.
Ah words… I love and I hate them. While they are a powerful avenue I have for sharing my heart with others, they distort as much as they reveal the truth – and this is what happens when my motives are pure!
Because there are of course other times when my motives are less than pure and I use words to hurt. We’re all familiar with the regret of saying things we wish we could unsay. In my anger and hurt I’ve used precious words to wound people. I myself have been wounded by careless words. Sometimes we wound with the words we do not say.
While we know all too well of this misuse of the power of words, there is a subtler and I would say even more insidious misuse of words, and that is when we use them to inflict hurt, gain power, or hide.
The Pharisees were lovers of words, and the words they loved and became skilled in appropriating were the very words of God. With these holy, precious, and true words they stroked their own self-righteousness, silenced their detractors, lorded over the people they were to serve, and hid the wickedness of their own hearts. White washed tombs is what Jesus called them!
Indeed, words are easily misused to distort the truth and wound others. But even when we have the best of intentions, our words are still just as likely to distort and wound as when our motives are less than pure. Especially when it comes to conveying love.
With my wife, I’m often tempted to love her with the love of a Pharisee – hanging on her every word, cataloging them, cross-referencing them in an attempt to be a good husband and get a handle on what’s expected of me. But just as the Pharisees knew the words of God inside and out but failed to recognize Jesus as the consummation of all those words, so too have I often heard my wife’s words but missed her heart.
Ah words… you fail me at every turn.
Lately I’ve taken comfort in the notion that God can relate to my predicament. In the Old Testament God gave us words to live by – ten holy commandments that were to help make us free and come alive. But down through the centuries these words have been misunderstood, maligned, and obscured as more and more words were added for “clarification,” only serving to confuse us and leave us more fearful and guilt-ridden than ever. Is this a failure on God’s part to convey his heart? Or merely one more example of the limit of words – the way the meaning of words (even the words of God) can get lost in translation when we hear them through the filters of our shame, guilt, and fear? Generations later Jesus would try to make it easier on us by telling us that really, there are only two laws to really worry about: Love God, and love others (including yourself). And yet we’ve managed to misuse and misunderstand even these.
It’s comforting for me to think that maybe even God knows something of the frustration of the limits of words. And more than that, it’s inspiring to see His solution.
After centuries of words piled upon words, he created a new way of speaking, a new language that would speak louder and clearer than all the words that came before. He spoke a single Word: Jesus – a living word, an incarnate word.
In the life and the loving of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the heart of God and the intent of the law is finally revealed. The Word of God now had hands and feet to hold and carry us with. Love became less of a theory and more of a revolution. Where written words had failed us, a Living Word redeemed us. That’s of course not to say that we should disregard the written words that came before. On the contrary, Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to complete it. The Living Word, Jesus, helps us to better understand and see clearly the written word. “Ah, that’s what God meant,” we say in wonder as we see the Mosaic law come alive in the life of Christ.
In other words (hah! Here I go again, hoping to mitigate misunderstanding by using more words!), I can use words to tell my wife I love her, but when I add to those the action of living out my love for her in a way that helps her understand what those spoken words mean, she will believe and understand what “I love you” means. Love incarnated is more persuasive than love merely spoken.
I’ve used a lot of words to talk about the limit of words, but permit me a few more as I close with a story.
I have listened to the words of many prayers over my lifetime, but there is one that I remember above all the others, and it was prayed over me by my friend Andrew Peterson when I was going through a very difficult time in my life. He listened to me and shared some great encouragement from the story of his own life. At the end of several days of conversation, he asked if he could pray for me, and I said yes, grateful but expecting the usual kind of prayer that is a bit like preaching to the one you’re praying for. But his prayer was like no other I’ve ever experienced.
We bowed our heads and closed our eyes as he put his hand on my shoulder. And then… silence. No words were spoken in his prayer, but I could feel movement and so I opened my eyes to sneak a peak and found Andrew earnestly praying words in his heart that I would never hear, with tears streaming down his face, his head shaking and bobbing with passion as he contended in prayer over my situation, in an earnest conversation with our God… It was not a prayer for the benefit of my hearing, but for the benefit of my soul and reminded me that we serve a God who hears the deep unspoken groaning of our hearts. When he finished after several minutes, he finally said the one word he would speak of that prayer: “amen”. And I’ve never felt more confident of a prayer being heard as I did that one.